If you are ever stuck waiting for a delayed train at Liverpool Street, head off Bishopsgate into St Botolph’s churchyard and you’ll discover a very Victorian Turkish delight. Once a well-known name amongst wealthy Londoners, Nevill’s Turkish baths were theplace for any discerning City worker to take some respite from their hectic schedules. Relaxing in one of London’s bathhouses was a very popular pastime and Nevill’s was a particularly respected establishment. St Botoloph’s is the home to one of this popular chain’s most opulent buildings, and it remains beautifully intact, 120 years after it first opened.
As soon as you turn off Bishopsgate, you spot some intricate mosaic patterns glinting in the distance. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake this small kiosk-like churchyard building or the most elaborate gardener’s shed you’ve ever seen. Exotic Arabic patterns, colourful stained glass windows and an Ottoman minaret, complete with dome and crescent moon makes an incongruous sight. In fact, this fascinating building was the decorative grand entrance hall to a subterranean gentleman’s spa, opened here in 1895 as the fifth in Nevill’s chain of Turkish baths.
There’s something truly mysterious about this impressive structure. In many ways, it’s not hard to imagine passing through it and descending into an underworld maze of showers, baths and caldaria. It’s almost a magical portal – think Alice in Wonderland or Mr Benn – that would have taken its City gentlemen patrons into a world of exotic shampoos, ouds and medicines, including a dry Turkish sauna and a rose-scented shower. The décor inside would have equally fitted with the Middle Eastern theme, Arabic mosaics, marble floors and Persian rugs – pure, pure luxury. Breathing in these exotic scents and going through traditional spa bathing and massaging rituals wasn’t just seen as fun, it was also considered medicinal. Nevill’s were marketing gurus of their day, promising “strength, health, beauty” on their pamphlets, which also featured testimonials from medical professionals, lauding the health benefits of spas and declaring Nevill’s as a cure for everything from skin rashes to the common cold. Think of a filthy, polluted Dickensian London and it’s no wonder Nevill’s Turkish bath felt like a healthy, underground oasis to escape from the dirty metropolis above.
By the 1950s, the popularity of this pastime was in decline and Nevill’s closed their doors. Thankfully, the stunning St Botolph’s location gained Grade II listed status and remains for all to see today. Throughout the second half of the 20thcentury, a few restaurants and nightclubs set up shop here and it is currently a luxury cocktail bar called The Victorian Bathhouse, Bishopsgate. Keeping much of the spa’s original interiors, and also boasting a “Victoriana menu with a modern twist,” it’s truly a bar like no other. From both the outside and the inside, this building is well worth checking out. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a hobby of Londoners from a bygone era; a look at a Turkish haven that seems incongruous in a City churchyard. Saying that, it must be one of the most beautiful sore thumbs in London!
Coutours can create private and bespoke tours of London to include such hidden gems as the Turkish bathhouse and other oddities.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.